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A Reflection on Media’s Coverage of Protests around George Floyd’s Death in Police Custody

A protester carrying a sign saying Same Story Different Soil in a protest rally against racism in June, 2020

By Mas Biswas
Media Diversity Forum 

(June 9, 2020) - This past weekend, not only in U.S. cities, towns and neighborhoods, people representing multicultural identities in Europe, Australia, Africa, and East Asia also showed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over the death of George Floyd by organizing and participating in protest rallies and vigils.

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in police custody on May 25th triggered protests in major U.S. cities. In the last two weeks, protest rallies and vigils got bigger drawing participation from people of diverse identities, not only Blacks. Even protesters in Australia could relate to the killing of George Floyd and racial injustice as one of the protesters there holding a banner saying, “Same Story, Different Soil.”

"same story different soil" #blacklivesmatteraustralia #AboriginalLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/bAIudyzJdm

— 🌹Pat Simons (@prrsimons) June 6, 2020

A worth noting aspect of this protest is, it brought together people of diverse and multicultural backgrounds -- white and non-white, various age groups and gender identities. The power of this united and diverse voice against racial injustice in U.S. cities encouraged and energized protests against racism outside the U.S.

Hence, how media outlets cover these protests matter since protesters are demanding for a bigger change against systemic racism and in support of equity and justice. The discourses or languages journalists use or highlight matter as Danielle Kilgo, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University, argued, “general public’s opinions about protests and the social movements . . . are formed in large part by what they read or see in the media.

Media/communication experts have noticed some “hopeful things” in the news coverage of the George Floyd protest. Highlighting the protest rallies and participation of a diverse group of people in protests were able to contribute more public participation in the rallies. Dr. Sarah Jackson, associate professor of communication at University of Pennsylvania, in her interview with an NPR show observed that journalists this time increasingly called out the police, and, consequently, journalists became the targets of police in multiple cities. Simultaneously, she still sees the media’s reliance on the use of passive voice in describing police actions which can be problematic. For example, use of “protesters gassed” instead “police gassed the protesters.” 

Dr. Jackson also thinks media outlets need to decide how much weight they would give in their coverage of some violence aspects of the protest, caused by opportunists and anarchists. According to her, violence took place in every revolution for a positive change in American history. Unfortunately, journalists in the past chose to cover those violent activities more than peaceful protests and responsible behavior. Media’s bias toward sensationalism can incorrectly convey the message about a protest event. It also encourages some people to engage in destructive and violent behavior during the protest.

Rashon Howard, an activist who helped in the West Philadelphia cleanup efforts, in his interview with the same NPR show commented that media outlets in Philadelphia did not show up when many residents in West Philadelphia came out early in the morning to clean up the city streets after nights of angry protests. However, journalists began covering the event when elected officials showed up at the protest venue. 

Often mainstream media are criticized for not sufficiently framing a protest against racial injustice and police brutality as an anti-racism protest or “racist policing.” 

An academic study on “Protests, Media Coverage, and A Hierarchy of Social Struggle,” conducted by Kilgo and her colleague, found that media outlets do not equally highlight the message of all social protests. For example, media outlets highlight protesters’ voice in Women’s March and anti-Trump protests while they give “least legimiting coverage” to “protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights.” Instead, news about violence and looting takes up a good portion of news coverage of protest against racism and police brutality. According to an NPR podcast on Race, Protest and Media Coverage, “Burning police cars, glass-shattered storefronts and looters have captured the news media’s attention in recent days, overshadowing the protests calling for an end to racist policing.”

Related Article: 

Roundup: Ethnic Media’s Coverage of Protests around George Floyd’s Death in Police Custody (Media Diversity Forum)

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“CBS This Morning” Co-Host Gail King’s Interview with Rep. John Lewis (CBS News)

1968 - 2020: A tale of two uprisings (NPR)

Being Black In America: 'We Have A Place In This World Too’ (NPR)